'We know that all creation has been groaning together and in labour together right up to the present time; not only so, but likewise we ourselves, having the first-fruits of the spirit, we ourselves also together groan inwardly as we earnestly await our adoption as children, the redemption of our bodies.'
The thought I would like to focus on here is the idea of our groaning together. Now this doesn’t appear in any other translation I know of, so for those who are curious to know where I got this from, let me explain.
In Greek Paul says that we groan 'en hautois', which can mean within ourselves (as the English versions generally have it), but it can also mean amongst ourselves. I think this second idea is worth exploring because it very much fits in with what Paul says just before and after this. Firstly, he compares our groaning with that of all creation which, he has just told us, groans together. Shortly after this he says something that the translations (including my own in a previous verse in this series) express as “in the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness”. However, I now see that this falls short in expressing Paul’s full meaning here; he does not use the standard Greek word for help. There’s the kind of help you get when you are in trouble and go to some one for advice; but the word Paul uses here expresses the kind of help you get when you are working hard at digging, and some one comes alongside you and starts digging along with you, or you are rowing, and some one helps you by rowing together with you. So we would better translate it as something like “in the same way, the spirit labours together with us to aid us in our weakness”.
So the emphasis in this passage is on labouring and groaning together. Just a bit earlier (verse 17) Paul has said that we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, “seeing that we suffer together in order that we might be glorified together”. The English bible versions give an interpretative translation based on deciding that this must be referring to our suffering with Christ so that we might be glorified with Christ. I don’t doubt that Paul means that in part, but I think he is probably also referring to all of us believers suffering together. If I am right here, what does he mean by talking of us groaning together? It doesn’t mean he envisages us getting together for collective groaning sessions! But he is saying that our inward groaning - that is to say, our pain and yearning, which goes alongside of our hope in our ultimate destiny, is not just something we experience as individuals, but something we feel together collectively. This may not be necessarily obvious to us as something we are aware of, but we may get a sense of the reality of it when we are in situations where this collective longing and hope is conspicuously absent. I experience this at funerals where I am aware of people for whom death and what lies after it is simply a blank. I felt it particularly when attending an openly humanist funeral, and experiencing that yawning sense of emptiness surrounding the event and the person who had died (who I know from a Christian friend had started to experience an awakening of faith in his last years that his family was oblivious to). There was nothing for them to yearn for concerning what lies beyond death because they had no hopes in relation to it; there was no expression of either longing or hope in what was felt and said. It was a sad and pathetic occasion, but I thank God for what it taught me.
Even the very fact of our meeting together on a Sunday morning, when there lots of other nice things we could be doing instead, is an expression of our shared hope, and our shared longing for something better to come; when we sing songs together and when we talk and pray about painful situations it is all within the context of this shared longing and hope. All this brings to mind a memorable moment I had with an elderly lady I used to visit (who has since passed on). She lived on her own, and my father used to give her lifts to church, and I thought she might appreciate being visited. I didn’t find it easy at first; I could never quite work out if she had a hearing problem or a concentration problem but she continually used to have to ask me to repeat myself, which would make conversation a bit hard-going at times. But we persevered with each other, and then one day she came out with something that will ever stick in my memory. I can’t remember what we had been talking about (except that it wasn’t something personal), but quite out of the blue, she looked quite intently at me and said “things can’t go on like this can they, Andrew?”, to which I found myself responding with a sense of quiet conviction “no they can’t, Edna”. It was one of those precious moments of connection where no explanation was necessary as to what she meant; she didn’t need to explain it – I just knew. To anyone who wonders what she meant, I doubt I can put it any better than she did, 'things can’t go on like this'. Now although, like a lot of older people, she was inclined to look back fondly on the way things used to be, she wasn’t the sort of melancholic person with whom you find yourself having long heavy discussions about the state of the world. She wasn’t that kind of person at all. I don’t think she had a melancholic temperament, which is what made her comment stand out for me all the more.
Now I am a melancholic, and I have a natural disposition in that part of me to feel that things in the world are going to fall apart. But this is not what Edna meant. Being objective, I don’t actually think it is true anyway, although I think it is true that there have been times, and are going to be times, when it feels like things in the world are heading for melt-down, even if that is not so. But there is yet a kernel of truth in this feeling; I think that if God left us humans to our own devices things really would fall apart. There is a verse in the Noah story where God looked down and, as the Hebrew has it, the end of all things was before his sight. The translators have interpreted this to mean that God decided to put an end to all things. Might it not mean that God looked down and saw that the way things were going, the world was heading for a complete melt down? If so, the implication of the story is that this was only avoided because God took drastic measures to cleanse the world of human folly and wickedness.
God has an alternative to things falling apart. It is painful and messy at times, but it ultimately leads to something positive; it could perhaps best be expressed it in terms of bringing things to a head. That is both an ongoing process and also one that the New Testament sees as coming to a climax at the end of the age. Whenever there is a crisis, that is God bringing things to a head, forcing an issue, challenging people to face up to the truth and deal with things they may have been avoiding. When this happens, people may see that they need to come up with some kind of solution, but without God helping us to work it through properly, attempts at putting things right are usually expedient measures that, whatever good they may have in them, run away from deeper spiritual realities where we find deeper, more lasting solutions – which lays the seed for further problems down the road, and another potential crisis. That’s why these things keep happening. Looking at the news, we could say that humanity is either heading for a crisis, in the middle of a crisis, or trying to get over the last one! And these are building up to the point when God brings history to a final head at the end of the age.
So then, a series of crises building up to a final one which is prelude to a new creation – you must forgive me for speaking of something for which I have no experience of beyond watching Call the Midwife, but that sounds very much like the process of giving birth, which is why I think that Paul uses the imagery of creation being in labour. What my friend Edna was expressing was something we all recognise – a continuing sense of irresolution that is crying out for a final and proper resolution, and in Christ we have a real hope for the thing that we yearn for, even amid the world’s crises.
One of things our church focuses on is helping people to handle their emotions well; this is important in helping us to cope with difficulties and crises, whether they be our own personal ones, or being unavoidably caught up in a collective crisis. Without this such things can lead to us being completely overwhelmed. I speak from my own experience when I say that even just watching the news can make you feel overwhelmed. However well we handle our emotions, we cannot avoid being affected by the world’s difficulties and sufferings, and we would not be being properly human if we were not affected. It is indeed right that we should be affected. But when we groan and suffer together with each other, this can become a means of growing together and deepening our connection with each other. The more we are in touch with our introverts and able to handle them properly, the more we will be able to bond with each other in this, and in the depth of connection can come a kind of joy, even in the midst of suffering.